In heaven’s garden

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By Malu Lambert

“Lamb’s tongue, wild mustard, num num, fennel,” Eric Bulpitt rattles off as we walk. We haven’t even made it to the car yet. Eric and his sous, Rickey Broekhoven had met us outside of Newton Johnson Wine Estate. “You don’t have to go far to find interesting herbs,” says the chef.

We’re joining Eric on his daily forage before service at the Restaurant at Newton Johnson. He picks wild herbs, mushrooms, and forest edibles of all kinds, scouring the fertile, mountainous area of the Hemel-en-Aarde (heaven and earth).

“We buy in very little herbs, because there’s so much growing around us,” he says gesturing at scrub as he drives. He pulls over by a grove of pine trees. The chefs hop out, woven baskets in hand. “Someone’s been here,” says Eric with the air of a seasoned tracker. He points to where mushrooms have been pulled out of the ground, dark holes in the dead pine needle beds.

Though, there are some left for us. The chefs get to work deftly nicking ‘slippery jacks’ (as I learn they’re called) with paring knives, and tossing them into their basket in one fluid motion.

“Wow, look at this,” Eric says excitedly to Rickey. He’s plucking pine tips off the pine tree growing over the mushrooms. “They’re nice and sweet before flowering—when they open up they lose the moisture.”

How would he use it? “They grow together, they go together. In salad with pickled slippery jacks perhaps?”

One of our crew picks up a mushroom and is immediately made to wash his hands. “You have to know what you’re looking for,” cautions Eric. The offending mushroom looks remarkably similar to the edible slippery jack. “You might pick something that’s poisonous, because they look the same.”

The poetically named, white parasol mushroom is another one to be careful of we’re told. While it’s completely safe to eat; it often has an almost identical neighbour known as the ‘false parasol’, which could make you ‘violently ill’ if ingested.

The chefs have sped ahead, as if they were in a familiar grocery store with a list to check off. “It’s amazing what you find under pine trees,” says Eric when we catch up with him. He’s plucking ‘sheep sorrel’ out of the ground. Eric says that in the U.K it’s wildly expensive to buy in for kitchens.

There are around 26 spieces of sorrel in South Africa—and any kid growing up here will be familiar with one of the most common, wood sorrel. You know the one, the yellow flowers with the light green stem that we sucked on while daydreaming in fields? The one, ahem, with the urban legend that the reason it was sour is because dogs relieved themselves on them…

Like something out of a fairy-tale, the red helmet with white spots of a ‘magic mushroom’ stops us in our tracks. Known as the fly agaric, this mushroom will not only make you ill, but it has psychoactive properties too. To eat them and not go to fairyland means the cooking process is a laborious one of boiling out all the psychedelic properties, and in the end not really worth it as there are so many other edible varieties available.

These chefs see differently to us culinary civilians. Where I see a pond, with a couple of ducks skimming over, Eric sees the bull rushes and knows how they taste, ‘similar to cucumber with a slight radish-like burn’.

“Most of the herbs we pick, people consider weeds. My all-time favourite is chickweed, it’s earthy and juicy.”

Not only does this chef work wonders with weeds—he’s got the culinary pedigree to back it up. Having worked abroad in award-winning kitchens (including a stage at one of the world’s top restaurants,Noma) Eric is perhaps most well-known locally for role as head chef at Jardine (followed by a stint atThe Roundhouse).

“The creativity needs to be fierce,” says Eric of his approach in the kitchen. We stay local as much as we can, though I try not to restrict myself. The most important thing is cook good food and have a good time!”

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The Restaurant at Newton Johnson 

 Our au naturel shopping trip at its end, we head to the restaurant for lunch.

The kitchen is open for all to see, with a wood burning fire at its heart. We watch the chefs using the grill as you would a braai. 

Light wood pulls the design of the restaurant together; it’s fresh and neat, with wide windows to let in the glorious view of the valley.

And then we eat. Smoked duck breast salad with raw, pickled and pureed veg, topped with porcini crumble (the best salad I’ve ever had). Slow-braised beef tongue that cuts like butter with pickled celeriac, homemade mustard and nasturtiums.

The wines of Newton Johnson are perfect foil for the food, and I’ll come back for the pinot noir paired with the aged Chalmar beef sirloin and braised “umqusho”. Our last savoury dish is a warm salad of barley and tuna belly with aubergine and miso purée, dashi and sea lettuce nage.

The food is layered, textured, harmonious. It manages to be both simple and unusual. And though the ‘strange’ descriptions and ingredients may put some diners off, those more accustomed to regular fare. There’s only one thing you need to know: it’s utterly delicious, inspired cooking.

We can’t leave without having dessert of course. I go into the kitchen to watch Eric finish off the basil and vanilla plate with vanilla marshmallow and basil frozen yoghurt. The final touch? Burnt, soft meringues that are individually scorched with coals from the fire.

While the spectacular views here take this dining to incredible heights (pun intended), I could eat Eric’s food in a cardboard box and still feel as if I was right in the heart of this beautiful valley.

Not just a forager of the forest, Eric stalks the edible coastline too. Catch our Sept/Oct issue for our article on ‘cooking with seaweed’.

Restaurant at Newton Johnson

R320 Hemel-en-Aarde Road, Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Hermanus 

Lunches From Wednesday to Sunday: 12h00 - 14h00. Call +27 (0) 21 200 2148 to book.